The Obama Administration’s New Plan to Power Low-Income Homes With Solar Installations

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Veterans and low- to moderate-income households are now newly eligible to retrofit their homes and to finance solar energy projects at no up-front cost.

By Madeleine Thomas

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(Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The number of low-income homes powered by solar power nationwide is expected to increase tenfold in less than five years, President Barack Obamaannounced Tuesday, cutting energy bills for marginalized citizens in cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New York City.

The new Clean Energy Savings for All Initiative could put the American energy sector on track to increase solar power installations across less affluent households to one gigawatt nationally by 2020. As Pacific Standard has reported before, solar power is inching ever closer to becoming as cheap as regular electricity; photovoltaic systems have dropped more than 70 percent in price in recent years. Still, solar remains a luxury for impoverished neighborhoods. Just last year, less than 5 percent of the 645,000 households and businesses equipped with rooftop panels belonged to families earning less than $40,000 a year, a George Washington University Solar Institute report found.

“Solar panels are no longer for wealthy folks who live where the sun shines every day,” Obama said.

Obama’s announcement yesterday effectively revitalizes a once-defunct program known as PACE — or Property Assessed Clean Energy. Veterans and low- to moderate-income households are now newly eligible to retrofit their homes and to finance solar energy projects at no up-front cost. Instead, the costs of installation are paid back gradually through property tax bills and the savings collected from reduced energy bills. PACE actually began in 2008, in Berkeley, California, and was eventually adopted across the country as a model for incentivizing homeowners — especially less wealthy ones — to go solar. But in 2010, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac essentially stymied the program and encouraged lenders to do the same.

The Clean Energy Savings for All Initiative will also award $10,000 cash prizes to low-income communities to invest in solar power; advise local banks on how to finance community solar projects; and better promote job opportunities in solar energy workforce — a sector growing 12 times faster than the rest of the country’s economy — to distressed communities as well. Housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, and power companies from more than 36 states are also investing $287 million toward the project.

“Solar panels are no longer for wealthy folks who live where the sun shines every day,” Obama said in a video on Tuesday. “Today we’re offering even more families and communities to chance to choose cleaner sources of energy that save you money and protect the planet for all of us.”

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